But now, instead, I think I'll just talk about the faceless bitch slide.
Programmer Anne Gunn recently attended a professional conference she values. But after she wrote that post about what she got out of it, she wrote another post, Noah Kagan and the Faceless Bitch Slide, about that speaker's presentation. It's a careful, thoughtful analysis, something you'll value more when you read what happened during the presentation, for which Gunn was in the audience:
...as a way to bring emphasis to a point he was making about the mixture of pleasure and pain with which many of us approach our email inbox at the start of the day, Noah put up on the screen a picture of a young woman . . . writhing, I guess you’d say . . . on a floor, maybe? . . . in ecstasy — well, maybe. . . in pain, probably (a lot more pain than pleasure is what it looked like to me). And he tried very hard to get a couple of the audience members to describe the picture in some detail or put a word to her state. One of them stuttered out enough of a response to earn a bottle of hot sauce. Now, however weird and tasteless writhing-woman was, she was, at least, displayed on the screen in service to a point Noah was making in his speech.
But then came the faceless bitch: a headshot, not even particularly recognizable as female because the face and neck were covered by a huge opaque circle across which, in large letters, was enscribed BITCH.Gunn goes on to describe her reactions, which stopped short of leaving the room or confronting the speaker fully. The comments following her post include many angry, nasty words about women and about her, a backlash against her daring to write about the event.
A short time after the slide flashed on the screen, Kagan glanced over his shoulder, as if a bit surprised, since she clearly didn’t have anything to do with the point he was making, and said, “Oh, that’s just my previous girlfriend.” Then he just left her up there — for a long time. Long enough that finally I came to my senses, picked up my phone, and snapped a picture of the screen.
When I came across this post in a thread on Google+, I was saddened, but not surprised. This is just one of several recent examples, such as:
- This blog grew out of the experience I had with a woman client who was told her presentations weren't "sexy enough" by an all-male team of supervisors.
- Respected Internet researcher Danah Boyd was derailed during a convention keynote when men in the audience posted tweets--projected on a screen behind her as she spoke--about what it would be like to "do her." She didn't find out what was happening until her talk was over (and you can see video of it at the link).
- Even using the word "bitch" in a presentation isn't that unusual, according to this recent report about its use in military presentations.
Yet, when we do have the chance to read about it, it just reminds women of the uncomfortable place they may be putting themselves in when they stand up to speak--or just sit in the audience. They can get coached, dress differently and practice up a storm, but when they speak or watch presentations, they very likely may be reminded that to men present, they're nothing but a sexual object. And we wonder why women hesitate about public speaking. Even the most confident and polished speaker who's female might think more than twice about participating, given these circumstances.
This isn't new behavior. Even the charismatic Sojourner Truth, in her day, was accused of being a man at one assembly (no woman could speak that well, right?) and called on to show her breasts to a group of women so they could verify her gender. Instead, Truth bared her breasts to the entire audience, to silence her critics.
Uncomfortable as it is to have the faceless bitch slide out in the open, it's at least clear--unless our actions serve to obscure the incident. That kind of discrimination is far more difficult to spot when it's coded and hidden, as in those comments about how women talk more than men, when the genders speak about the same number of words per day. What works here is shining a light on it. I'd love to see more men and women calling men on this behavior, in person, on blogs, in letters to conference organizers and fellow speakers, and any other platform they can find. Let's at least create a realistic, rather than romantic, view of what women face when they attend presentations or give them.
What do you think about this uncomfortable situation? Have you walked out of similar presentations? Would you now? Share your thoughts in the comments.